On a warm, late-summer evening on Vancouver’s West Side, 250 or so invited guests gathered at The BMW Store to look at the latest development in the BMW Group’s halting drive to stay with the leaders in the electric vehicle (EV) race.
The 2022 BMW iX ($89,990 to start) and i4 (pricing expected in the mid-$50,000s), won’t roll into showrooms until next March, and production won’t even start until the end of 2021. But the sparkling, moneyed crowd dressed in a variety of bespoke suits, backless dresses with plunging necklines, and designer jeans falling over sockless loafers, pored over the iX and i4 prototypes with interest.
The relentlessly upbeat Ali Jiwani, in his role as Open Road Group vice-president, noted that “Vancouver is a hot spot for electric BMW sales,” and the numbers bear him out: of the 54,469 zero emissions vehicles (ZEV) registered in British Columbia, 40,469 were registered in Greater Vancouver, as of the end of 2020.
In fact, in its latest ZEV update the province reports that EVs accounted for nearly 1 in 10 new light vehicles bought in British Columbia last year. Zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) sales have surged from less than 1.0% of the light-vehicle total to 9.4% in 2020. The province’s Zero-Emissions Vehicle Act mandates increasingly stringent ZEV sales targets to 2040, when 100% of sales must be ZEVs. B.C.’s ZEV rules are, of course, part of a broader global trend.
The ultra-luxurious iX is too expensive to qualify for the province’s $3,000 taxpayer-funded, point-of-purchase EV rebate, but the i4 — a high-performance battery-powered sedan — will likely slip in under the $55,000 retail price ceiling for eligibility. (For the record, in 2020, the top five rebate winners were Tesla Model 3, the Hyundai Kona, Toyota Prius Prime, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and the Chevrolet Bolt.) But judging by The BMW Store party-goers, there is plenty of interest in high-end EVs, here and globally.
BMW is, of course, a luxury automaker in an EV race with the world’s best high-end players, from Mercedes-Benz to Porsche, from Tesla to Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, Cadillac, Lincoln, Volvo and others. For every Chevy Bolt or Nissan LEAF EV selling in the high-$30,000s and $40,000s, there is a Porsche Taycan ($119,900 base), Tesla Model S Plaid ($169,990 base) or Mercedes-Benz EQC (pricing TBD but it will be super expensive). Sure, Ford, a mainstream brand, has a winner in its Mustang Mach-E ($50,495 base), but it’s still priced in the premium stratosphere.
The Mach-E, in fact, underscores the stumbles and misfires and miscalculations that have marked BMW’s EV efforts for a decade. The Mach-E is here right now and has garnered tremendous praise and brand-building media coverage for Ford. Meantime, BMW has been chided for its halting efforts in the EV race. Nothing BMW has yet done with EVs can match the surprise and delight accolades and pure buzz that have landed on the Ford.
As I mingled with the BMW folks, sipping a lovely Okanagan Valley chardonnay, I thought back to a decade ago, when I spent a week in Germany for a deep dive into BMW’s then-emerging EV program. In a series of workshops, we learned about the ground-breaking i3, a novel though range-limited battery car with a carbon-fibre body wrapped around an aluminum chassis.
Since then, BMW has launched a number of pure electric and plug-in hybrids, most based on traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) platforms, and none has garnered the buzz of a Model S or a Mach-E. And as The New York Times reports, BMW has not “set a date to bury the internal combustion engine,” like Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover, General Motors and others.
While the sprawling Volkswagen Group has made a full commitment to battery-electric cars, BMW’s CEO, notes The Times, has chided the European Union for banning gasoline and diesel engines by 2035. Swiss investment bank UBS, in fact, predicts VW will become the first global automaker to make money from selling battery-only electric vehicles (BEVs). Forbes reports that VW will start seeing a financial return starting in 2022.
VW, in fact, sees huge potential profits in software and battery sales, notes Bloomberg, adding that VW CEO Herbert Diess staged a “Tesla Inc.-style battery briefing in March” to woo investors. On the way out are combustion engines and coming to replace them as profit-drivers are “software systems that enable automated driving and can be updated over the air.”
While BMW, then, has made a less than fulsome commitment to BEVs, “We (VW) set ourselves a strategic target to become global market leader in electric vehicles — and we are well on track,” Diess said in a statement quoted by Bloomberg. “The next much more radical change is the transition toward much safer, smarter and finally autonomous cars.”
Peter Wells, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School in Wales, tells The Times that BMW has “been quite ambivalent” about “committing to a full lineup of electric vehicles.”
Yes, but I believe that in the EV race, it would be a mistake to write off the highly competitive and fiercely independent BMW just yet. The iX SUV (sport-utility vehicle) on show at The BMW Store reflects BMW’s apparent new-found commitment to EVs, in fact. Not since the i3 has BMW designed a proper battery car from the ground up and there are more like it to come. This isn’t a half-hearted plug-in based on a traditional ICE rig, but something totally new.
The Times and various reports note that in its Munich research centre, BMW is developing its own battery technology, though for the present, BMW is buying batteries from suppliers. BMW is also focused on its own, dedicated EV platform technology, and related components. BMW will be ready to wow the EV marketplace within a very few years, even though right to 2025, most BMW plug-in cars will be conversions from conventional ICE models.
In the big picture remember this: BMW is loaded with talented engineers, designers and product developers. By global standards BMW is a small automaker, but because its controlling shareholder is the secretive Quandt family, the company can be a nimble decision-maker.
On the other hand, BMW cannot afford to make mistakes, to mis-time the marketplace. The i3 taught BMW that being first to market is not always the right strategy, and some believe the i3’s marginal success scared the company, triggering a cautious EV plan and a halting commitment going forward.
It might be fair to conclude that BMW seems intent on being best, not first. That may work out. In the meantime, though, rivals are moving fast to occupy the EV space, especially in high-end autos. By being timid, BMW runs the risk of never catching up to its more committed and enthusiastic rivals – from VW to Tesla.